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Looking for Sodom

30 April 2011

This is the title of an article at http://popular-archaeology.com/issue-printer/april-2011 …. looking for the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the Plain that were destroyed by God, have proved to be a little elusive. It seems that excavations in progress at the moment may be a little promising – but don't hold your breath. Previously, archaeologists have focussed on the region to the SE of the Dead Sea where a narrow alluvial plain is situated. Not exactly the kind of Plain envisaged in the Biblical text, too small perhaps. Others have thought they may lie at the bottom of the Dead Sea itself, but geologically the origins of the Dead Sea appear to preclude this. Its all gone quiet on Bab edh Dhra, the former favoured location. It was destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze period – which appeared to be the kind of timescale, chronologically speaking, suitable to place the Patriarchal narrative – namely, the Early Bronze intermediate that is currently dated between 2300 and 2000BC. The problem of course is what kind of ruins might be expected if fire and brimstone from the heavens had befallen the cities of the Plain – and as we learnt at the 1996 SIS Cambridge Conference, Marie Agnes Courty considered there was evidence for a cosmic event of some kind, presumably akin to the Tunguska explosion, at around 2300BC. All in all nothing conclusive has been found so archaeologists appear to have broadened their horizons. One of them has homed in on Tell el-Hamman, 14 km NE of the Dead Sea, and a tell amid what is now the fields of farmers. It is situated in the valley of the River Jordan – which is presumably why the area is fertile. However, does that conform to the Biblical picture of a Plain? Like a lot of places in the region the site has a long history of occupation, going back at least to the Chalcolithic era (4300-3300BC), through the Early Bronze Age (3300-2350), the Intermediate Bronze Age (2350-2000) and the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550BC) when it was destroyed, leaving behind a layer of ash and a distinct hiatus in occupation of between 500 and 700 years. It was reoccupied in the Iron Age (at some point after 1200BC) and continued in existence during the first millennium BC and beyond. Hence, there are factors millitating against an identification with Sodom – there is no indication in the Bible that Sodom or Gomorrah were ever reinhabited. Also, the archaeologist appears to be of the view that Biblical events mainly took place in the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC and an end of Middle Bronze date is significant. Many others would disagree with that, for various reasons, but the layer of ash is intriguing – so it means keeping an eye out for future developments in the new excavation season. However, it is clear that other sites in Syria-Palestine and Transjordan were also unoccupied in the Late Bronze era, and what is clear, as the archaeologists say is that Sodom and Gomorrah aside, it is clear the region was at the hub of major trade routes and a very important place in the Middle Bronze age. Who were the people who lived there?

Is it necessary to locate the Plain near the Dead Sea? This is a question that has a connection with the idea that Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she turned around just as God was doing his handiwork – obliterating the city and its inhabitants. Now, a pillar of salt near the Dead Sea is supposed to represent Lot's wife, a development of the tale – but even if she had died near the Dead Sea locale does this mean the cities were also situated there? The flash from a cosmic explosion in the lower atmosphere would have been seen over a wide area, akin to Tunguska, so it may be more fruitful to locate first the Plain and then the cities, somewhere east of the Jordan. 

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